Thursday, June 26, 2008

coaching (and training) different

there was an article in the NY Times about the coaching relationship between Benard Lagat, a kenyan-turned-US citizen and 2008 Olympic marathon hopeful, and his coach James Li, a former Chinese runner-turned coach and now US citizen. it's apparently part of a continuing series of articles following Lagat as he prepares for Beijing.

the link to the article is:
if it doesn't work, i've put the full text of the article below.

i find this fascinating for a number of different reasons:
  • internationalism. it's always amazing to me see the level of trans-national interaction that occurs in sports. it's one of things about sports that i love. it transcends borders. James Li is a Chinese coach coaching Kenyan runner Bernard Lagat, and both now represent the US as US citizens for the purpose of competing in the Olympics, against competitors from the countries in the rest of the world. what's even more remarkable is that the relationship between Li and Lagat isn't imposed or artificial, but a long-term one (12 years!) of mutual respect, friendship, dedication, and commitment to each other and the sport. it shows people, regardless of background, can work together...and that we're all just human beings, and we can be productive if we're able to get past stereotypes and biases if we just have faith in each other and work together.
  • it gives some insights into the world of China's (as in the PRC's) athletics program. just from the few comments provided by Li, you can sense the machine that is driving the PRC's athletic program, and just how it treats its athletes. it's a veritable machine. almost akin to the notorious East German and Soviet-bloc sports programs in how it operates, with athletes being virtual guinea pigs (or, depending on how you look at it, automatons) stuck on machine-like regimens and experimental treatments. granted, the same thing can be said of a lot of other countries, but with the PRC you get the Orwellian vision of a state-sponsored system, with athletes having little options or protection. this isn't the first article that's hinted at this (reference a previous article i commented on: athletes in other countries).
  • the taint of performance-enhancing drugs. the article references the infamous coach Ma Junren, who surged into the athletic spotlight with a crop of female long-distance runners training under his extreme methods (they regularly ran a marathon every day). he claimed the training was possible because of concoctions made of, among other things, turtle soup and caterpillar fungus. as the article notes, his entire roster of athletes were quietly removed from China's Olympic team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics when blood tests yielded positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
  • the spectre of overtraining. it appears the PRC has fallen into the same trap that so many sports science experts say is the bane of endurance sports. apart from Ma Junren, the article also cites the extreme training in China, with endurance athletes frequently going for higher and higher volume workouts. this seems to be a mindset beyond the state sports program, permeating all of athletic hopefuls (reference another article i commented on: 8-year old runs 2200 miles). Li himself seems to note this in his comments about Xing Huina, a female athlete who was sent by the PRC to Li for coaching, and who he found was so overtrained that there was nothing he could do...just goes to show you that it's not about the quantity, but the quality of training.
  • throwing the book away. my favorite line from this article is Li's statement, "If I’ve been able to do one thing, it is to liberate myself from what is written in a book." it's somewhat surprising, coming from someone who came from what seems a regimented state-sponsored sports system like China...but maybe that's why he became so dedicated to a more liberal approach, because he saw just how bad a machine-like training program can become. regimented, robotic training programs can produce results, both in terms of insights about the human body and performance on race day (witness East Germany and the Soviet systems, which despite their drug-infested cultures, generated a lot of new training methods and concepts being used the larger athletics community today), but it can also break athletes down and impede their development--or worse, destroy them altogether. to some degree, not everyone is the same, and training methods that work for one person may not work for another (otherwise, there wouldn't be so many training methods being used). Li recognizes this, and even though long-distance runners regularly run more than 100 miles a week, he adjusted the training and has Lagat run 65-70 miles a week. WOW. this highlights that training principles are not absolute, but are more just guidelines (remember Pirates of the Carribean? "what about the Pirate Code?" "they're more just guidelines..."), and ones that can--and should--be tailored to fit the peculiarities of the athlete. in other words, training programs and concepts are just reference points, and you have to modify them to accommodate the particular conditions you are presented in an individual's body, with the understanding that the point of training is to fulfill very specific purposes enabling the development of specific desired aspects of a person's physical potential--and the key word is enabling: training isn't about allowing the body to grow, not about beating it down. and to do this, sometimes you have to ignore convention and just be different.
the last point is the biggest one for me out of this. don't be afraid to be different. i wish someone had told me this when i had first started in triathlon. it would have saved me a lot of suffering, injuries, overtraining, and resulting down-time. it's something i'm having to figure out now.

granted, with a training regimen, you have the comfort of just following a program, and so avoid the burden of having to concentrate on the reasoning as to why or what to do. and there's a certain security and laziness factor in having someone else telling you what to do.

but as this article observes, this isn't always the best approach. sometimes it's better to put in the effort to tailor the training to your body. it takes more work, since it means becoming more sensitive to your body, and learning to understand what its signals mean, and also discovering just why and what you need to do to get it to change. but it means training in a way that is more suited to the unique characteristics in your body, and so in the long run can mean greater progress--or just simply a longer quality of life...which is what athletics is really supposed to be about.

in the meantime, let's cheer on our U.S. team. yeah, so what if the U.S. imported them? doesn't the U.S. import everybody? we're all Americans. go Bernard Lagat! go James Li!

On Coach’s Turf, Lagat Aims for Olympic Gold
New York Times
June 24, 2008

PORTLAND, Ore. — Sunset last Monday seemed to bring a perfect ending to a perfect day in what so far had been a perfect year. Bernard Lagat had just finished a nine-mile trail run as his coach, James Li, followed along on a bike. They had escaped the desert heat of Arizona for cool shade to train for the Olympic track and field trials. Then the evening calm was shattered, along with two windows of the rental car in which they had ridden.

Smash-and-grabbers made off with Lagat’s cellphone and his wallet, which contained several hundred dollars, his driver’s license, his credit cards and his young son’s Social Security card. By the time Li and Lagat called the police and canceled the credit cards, the thieves — two men and a woman, according to witnesses — had added $2,000 worth of charges.

Lagat’s wife would have to send his passport from Tucson. Otherwise, he would have no identification to get through airport security to fly home for a few days.

The next afternoon, Lagat, 33, and Li, 47, resumed training on a secure track at Nike headquarters in nearby Beaverton, two longtime associates planning for the Beijing Olympics, one leaving his past behind, the other returning to a homeland of unimaginable change.

The Olympic trials open Friday in Eugene, Ore. Having won medals for Kenya at the 2000 and 2004 Summer Games, Lagat is now competing as a United States citizen. Undefeated in seven indoor and outdoor races this year, he is the reigning world champion at 1,500 meters and 5,000 meters and a gold-medal favorite in Beijing.

Li is Lagat’s personal coach and the associate head coach at the University of Arizona. He is also the manager of the United States Olympic men’s track team. There may not be a more vital member of the entire delegation.

A handsome, soft-spoken man, Li was born in China and educated at its most prestigious sports institute. Many of China’s top sports officials are his peers. When no one from the United States could get a sneak peek inside Beijing’s Olympic Stadium, Li knew whom to call. One of the stadium managers slept on a bunk above him for four years in college.

“I believe this is my time,” said Li, who became a United States citizen in 1998.

His own road to the Beijing Olympics has been as winding as the running trails here. Li came of age during China’s Cultural Revolution, an attempt by Mao Zedong to purify the Communist Party and purge it of intellectuals, which resulted in violent disorder from the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s.

As a schoolboy, Li remembers organizing “struggle parties” in which students attacked teachers, wrenching their arms behind their backs. He remembers his mother being jailed briefly, accused of being a counterrevolutionary. He remembers sports being dismissed as frivolous and the hunger he felt in his stomach at school and the restrictions that kept him from watching all but a handful of movies from the time that he was 6 until he was 16.

“It was crazy, like you were brainwashed,” Li said.

Criticism and Pride

The changes in China since then — the economic rise, the emerging openness — seem almost beyond comprehension to him. He finds much to criticize about China’s record on human rights, Li said, but he also feels proud that Beijing will host the Summer Games.

“You cannot argue that the Olympics are completely independent from politics; it never has been,” Li said. “But you cannot make an argument the other way, by saying that the Olympics should be all about politics, that because your ideology is not right, you cannot have them. How far are you going to go? Are we going to bar athletes from some countries whose ideology we don’t like?

“The ideal of the Olympic Games is we are there, through sports, to promote exchange, understanding and good will among young people in the world, regardless of their ideology.”

The son of a father who is a retired metallurgical engineer and a mother who is a retired sports official, Li became a top collegiate 800-meter runner while attending the Beijing Institute of Physical Education in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Still, his journey toward this moment began serendipitously.

In 1984, after China ignored the Soviet boycott and competed at the Summer Games in Los Angeles, Li was asked to examine a résumé that landed on his desk at the Sichuan Sports Institute in Chengdu, China. The résumé belonged to John Chaplin, a renowned track and field coach from Washington State who had met Chinese officials during the Olympics and a cultural exchange at the university.

“I got picked purely by chance,” said Li, then a young coach. “No one around me spoke any English, and I spoke some.”

When Chaplin went to China later in 1984 on a sports exchange program, his interpreter struggled with the term starting blocks. Li took over and apparently made a great first impression. By 1985, he was a graduate assistant on Chaplin’s staff at Washington State.

Four years later, Li was completing work on a doctorate and was scheduled to return to China. Again, his career took an unplanned detour when the bloody crackdown on students occurred in Tiananmen Square. Li was left dispirited, and decided to remain in the United States.

“In that political atmosphere, I felt I would not have the kind of future I would have liked professionally,” Li said.

In 1990, he became head track coach at Mankato State University in Minnesota, and returned to Washington State in 1994. He was always on the lookout for a great miler. Upon arriving in the United States, Li had become engrossed in the performance of Britain’s Roger Bannister, who had run the first sub-four-minute mile three decades earlier, in 1954.

Li had been so isolated in China that he had never heard of Bannister’s achievement. Even if he had, the mile would have meant little in a country that used the metric system. He first learned of Bannister from a tape of a discontinued television series, “Numero Uno,” produced in 1982 by the documentary filmmaker Bud Greenspan.

“It became my great motivation,” Li said. “Man versus machine. What the human body could accomplish. Not just the physical aspect but the spiritual side of it.”

Finally, his own star miler arrived at Washington State in 1996. A Kenyan runner there named Eric Kamau kept urging Li to recruit one of his friends, Bernard Lagat, known as Kip.

“He is so good, his stride is so beautiful,” Kamau told Li. “I wish I had his stride.”

When Lagat arrived in the summer of 1996, though, a knee injury left him with a limping gait. For more than two months, he trained for no more than 20 minutes at a time, Li said, always at a pace above five minutes a mile. Then, in the Pacific-10 Conference cross-country championships that fall, Lagat finished a surprising seventh, demonstrating what Li came to believe was his most impressive quality — he raced at an even higher level than he trained.

“When the big meets come, he delivers,” Li said.

At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Lagat won a bronze medal at 1,500 meters for Kenya. At the 2004 Athens Olympics, he took silver. With Hicham el-Guerrouj of Morocco, the reigning Olympic champion and world-record holder, now retired, Lagat is favored to complete the medal set with a gold for the United States in Beijing.

“I don’t think Kip would totally agree, but in 2004 I’m not sure he really thought he was going to beat el-Guerrouj,” Li said. “Winning the world championship last year gave him a lot of confidence. Hopefully, that will prove crucial.”

Unconventional Success

Together for 12 years, a rarity for a track star and a coach in the United States, Lagat and Li have built their relationship on candor, respect, professional distance and a willingness to challenge sporting conventions. Many distance runners train twice a day and run 125 or so miles a week. Lagat has maintained his health and sharpness by training once a day and running about 65 to 70 miles a week.

“If I’ve been able to do one thing, it is to liberate myself from what is written in a book,” Li said.

After Lagat won his double victory at the 2007 world track and field championships, Li was named USA Track & Field’s coach of the year. Chinese officials then asked him to train Xing Huina, who won a gold medal in the women’s 10,000 meters at the Athens Olympics, but now had dead legs. Li worked with her futilely for several months, discovering that she was severely overtrained.

“I cannot turn rocks into gold,” he told Chinese authorities.

Extreme training has been a hallmark in China since at least 1993, when female runners coached by Ma Junren gave startling and suspicious performances. They ran a marathon per day in training and supposedly gained endurance from eating turtle soup and caterpillar fungus.

In 2000, Ma was discredited when he and six of his runners were removed from China’s team for the Sydney Olympics, after the runners showed questionable results on blood tests. It was a sign that Chinese officials were willing to adhere to international standards as they sought to host the Olympics. In that light, Li said, it seems extremely unlikely that Chinese runners would again come out of nowhere to win gold medals in Beijing.

“They know they can’t get away with what they did before,” Li said, adding that he believed that whatever doping now occurred in China was not state-sponsored. “I could not have said that 10 or 15 years ago.”

China’s most eagerly anticipated event in Beijing will be the men’s 110-meter hurdles. A countryman, Liu Xiang, is the defending Olympic champion and was the world-record holder until Dayron Robles of Cuba lowered the mark earlier this month. There is so much pressure on Liu that he seems “like a prisoner in his own country,” Li said.

A loss by Liu would leave China devastated, Li said, adding half-jokingly that he may want to go into hiding so he would not have to witness the fallout. “Not because I don’t want anybody to see me, but because I don’t want to see the look on people’s faces,” Li said. “They may set his house on fire or throw rocks at it.”

His most recent trip to China was last month, for Olympics business and to check on his aging parents, who live about 50 miles from the epicenter of the country’s devastating earthquake. For 48 hours after the quake struck, Li said, he panicked until he learned that they were O.K. and that their apartment building had survived intact.

Compared with an earthquake, vandalism of a rental car and stolen credit cards were a relatively minor annoyance. Still, an agitated Lagat had not warmed down properly after his workout that day, and 24 hours later his calves felt sore. Li took notice and eased up slightly on the next workout. Lagat said it was what he appreciated most about his coach.

“He understands where you are coming from and is willing to make adjustments,” Lagat said of Li. “He doesn’t carry that title of Dr. Li around in his head.”

Saturday, June 21, 2008

svenska midsommar 2008

well, it's midsummer.

for those of you who don't know, Scandinavian cultures celebrate what is known as Midsommar, which (as you can guess from the word) is the midpoint of the summer. basically, it's the longest day of the year. in 2008, it is today, Saturday, June 21.

in Northern Europe--particularly Scandinavia--Midsommar is celebrated as a major event, marked as a national holiday and with everyone going to festivals in the outdoors. it's made into a grand party, equal parts traditional and modern. you'll see people dressed in old-fashioned folk clothing and performing ancient customs, but you'll also see rock concerts and park picnics.

the origins of Midsommar are somewhat arcane. the holiday predates the arrival of Christianity, and so is arguably tied with pagan beliefs. of course, in the modern era, much of the pagan past has been forgotten, and Midsommar is usually now just an excuse to take a day off and have a really good time--a really really really really good time.

you can read more about it at:

one of the traditions that is faithfully preserved is the Maypole dance (yes, there really is a Maypole dance). in Sweden, the Maypole dance is done in conjunction with the singing of Små Grodorna, which everyone affectionately refers to as the "frog song" (små grodorna literally translates as "small frog").

any one who has ever lived for any length of time in Sweden will know this song. it's a song taught to all Swedish children, and performed without fail at every Midsommar Maypole dance. it's a part of every Swede's fond memories of childhood.

every Swede knows it. every are not Swedish if you don't know this song. adults, kids, dogs, cats, birds, bees, flowers, trees, everyone and anyone can sing this song and do the dance that goes with it.

and here's a picture i found to prove it:
if you visit Sweden, or ask any Swede, you'll notice the funniest thing happen: even as much as this song is a part of their childhood, they'll still perform this song--and the accompanying dance--freely and with absolute abandon, making complete and utter juvenile fools of themselves in complete contradiction to the image of the stoic icy frigid demeanor associated with Scandinavians. you'll find that adult Swedes are just as crazy as the child some ways, even more so.

including me.

which is why i'm posting the link to the blog post i wrote about it last year (complete with lyrics, translation, and videos!):

i even found some updated videos:
such fond memories...

i don't really see myself as a Swede in terms of nationality anymore--i never really did; my family left Sweden when i was 7, and i was too young to think about things like national identity or citizenship then. but i do hold a supreme affection for my childhood there, since it is filled with many warm memories. and i remember vividly Midsommar, and singing and dancing with all the other children and adults around the Maypole in unison to Små Grodorna.

no, this has nothing to do with triathlon. but it does have something to do with me. and i just wanted to share a very special day.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

e e cummings, and places beyond the heart

usually in the passage of miles along the distance i'll find myself reciting poetry. sometimes verbally, more often than not just internally.

a lot of it is the monotony of the miles, holding form along a swim, bike, or run course stretching over hours and hours trying to keep a metronome time. i find it difficult to maintain mental focus for that long, and i need something to help me concentrate. i use poetry seems to help. it's cheap (cost of a book or a short time on the internet for a review), it's lightweight (nothing more than words), and consumes no energy (other than just brain cells working memory). a perfect pace-setter for someone slaving their way forward with nothing but their own power to carry their own weight to places most people never dream of going.

i usually end up with poetry with an identifiable rhythm, either in syntax, structure, or rhyme. it helps me set a cadence, and a reference point for turnover rate that i can follow through all the buffeting and bumps and bruises of waves and pavement and potholes and cracks and competitors stumbling--intentionally or inadvertently--each other.

sometimes, however, the last thing i want help with is cadence. sometimes, the problem is not monotony of miles, but instead the insufferable monolith of misery.

endurance events, at some point, always bring the demons of the distance. despair, dejection, exhaustion, pain. supreme anguish. outright suffering. both mental and physical. it happens. sooner or later. eventually. ultimately. excruciatingly. it happens. and when it does, it can be overwhelming. at times like these the least of my problems is focusing on form. rather, it's just simply moving forward.

it's then that i find myself reciting poetry that has little to do with rhythm...or for that matter, any syntax, structure, or rhyme. poetry that runs free, and without form, beyond the confines of any cadence.

a major source of this (and recently, the only source for this) is e e cummings. i picked up a book of his complete poems recently, to refresh my memories of his writing, and i guess it's re-awakened my consciousness as to his work. he was a favorite--is a favorite--of mine, ever since i was in high school and first read his poems as part of a class curriculum. but i'd forgotten how much i loved his poems, and how much i'd missed them.

e e cummings' style was loose, open, uninhibited, unconventional. iconoclastic with so much of classic English poetry that had come before. and it didn't hurt that he lived an unabashed bohemian lifestyle without regard for conventions of his time. all of this appealed to the angst-driven rebel spirit of a teenage me seeking independence and longing to break out of the banality of suburban purgatory. e e cummings showed me that it was possible to be different, and not only possible, but also good...because it meant going beyond the mundane.

for all this, however, he was still rooted in his family's Unitarian upbringing, and maintained an avowed appreciation of the spiritual. it might seem paradoxical (some say even hypocritical) given his lifestyle, but to me it makes sense--he was trying to maximize his experience of life, as strange and magical as it is, and it meant pushing its boundaries, exploring its ends, learning its truths, as they could be found in both the sacred and the profane...and i think for him, they were both really the same, since human morality is so often a confusion (maybe even a perversion) of God's deeper truths.

and this is probably why i turn to him still, even though i am no longer the angst-driven rebel teen seeking something different. because he still speaks to me.

i like to recite most poetry because the rhythm, as much as it gives me a cadence by which i can concentrate on my course, also connects me to the greater rhythms of life and living: the movements of my body, the coursing of my blood, the beating of my heart, the breathing of my lungs, the pulsing of my skin. and in so doing, it connects me in time with the greater rhythms of existence: of the water, of the air, of the earth and sun and sky and moon and the expanse of all creation.

with e e cummings, however, with his lack of rhythm, or syntax or structure or rhyme, i find the poetry going beyond the confines of the cadence, above the form of any anguish, leaving me free to transcend the state of my own suffering.

you see, his words go beyond cadence, and in so doing beyond the rhythms of the self and even beyond the deeper rhythms of the universe. they go directly, fundamentally, simply, to the life's great truths. and because life's great truths are really a reflection of God's greater truths, they carry us beyond the confines of our current course and the confines of our mortal coil. to places beyond the reach of either, farther than even the endless horizons of the distance. to places that are beyond the yearnings of our heart. to places of our soul.

you can learn more about e e cummings at:

the collection of his poems that i've been reading is: e e cummings: Complete Poems 1904-1962

here's a selection of his poems that i've been thinking about lately:

love is a place
& through this place of
love move
(with brightness of peace)
all places
yes is a world
& in this world of
yes live
(skilfully curled)
all worlds
--love is a place

it is at moments after i have dreamed
of the rare entertainment of your eyes,
when(being fool to fancy)i have deemed
with your peculiar mouth my heart made wise;
at moments when the glassy darkness holds
the genuine apparition of your smile
(it was through tears always)and silence moulds
such strangeness as was mine a little while;
moments when my once more illustrious arms
are filled with fascination,when my breast
wears the intolerant brightness of your charms:
one pierced moment whiter than the rest
-turning from the tremendous lie of sleep
i watch the roses of the day grow deep.
--it is after moments i have dreamed

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near
your slightest look will easily unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose
or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully ,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;
nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing
(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands
--somewhere i have never travelled

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it's you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
--i carry your heart

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
wich is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday;this is the birth
day of life and love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
--i thank you God for this most amazing

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old
may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it's sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young
and may myself do nothing usefully
and love yourself so more than truly
there's never been quite such a fool who could fail
pulling all the sky over him with one smile
--may my heart always be open to little

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A Triathlete's Father's Day

this is the companion piece for A Triathlete's Mother's Day. in addition, in the U.S., this year Father's Day is Sunday, June 15.

You almost lost him, and you didn't even know it.

He was never the most expressive person in your family. Quiet. Silent. Spare in his language. As equally stoic with his speech as he was with his emotions. He occupied the polar opposite of your mother: whereas she spoke often and with many words, he spoke infrequently and with few; whereas she lived by her passion, he held to his reason. As a result, he'd never been a dominating presence in your life.

But it wasn't that he had nothing to say. You knew, as much as everyone knew, that his was a sophisticated mind, one with many thoughts, and that he thought his thoughts as every bit as your mother made known hers. The difference was that hers ran like the rapids of a swift surging cataract; his ran like the still waters of a slow-flowing river, moving as strong and as deep and as inexorable as the inevitability of time matched to the mysteries of eternity lying beyond the horizons of creation's great seas.

Which is why you should have noticed.

You should have noticed when he stopped riding his bicycle.

You should have noticed when he stopped walking around the neighborhood.

You should have noticed when he stopped working in the back yard, or on the outside of the house, or even inside with the chores.

You should have noticed when he talked about needing to rest, and about being tired, and about feeling his age. When he became reluctant to get groceries, to pick up the mail, to fill up the fuel in the car. When he stopped checking his voice-mail or e-mail. When he stopped even cooking his own food.

You should have noticed.

But you didn't.

Instead, you invited him to see you at Ironman. You reminded him of his endurance days in Sweden. You reminded him of his time when he rode 300 kilometers in 2 days, fueled by nothing but milk and eggs, riding a 25 kilogram steel-frame bike. You reminded him of his time when he ice-skated 65 kilometers across the Oresund from Malmö to Copenhagen and back.

You said you wanted him to see you doing Ironman.

He said he wanted to see you doing it, too.

You should have noticed when he said it was going to be his last trip.

But you didn't.

Instead, you waited for him to arrive with your mother on a separate, direct flight from Auckland to Taupo. You helped him carry his suitcase and bags. You walked with him along the Lake Terrace sidewalk into the Taupo Domain park. You stayed with him as he stopped every few meters to catch his breath.

And it was then you noticed that even though he couldn't stand for than a few minutes at a time, he watched, as much as he was able, as long as he was able, as possible as he was able, the entire course of race day, long enough to learn that you'd finished.

And it was then you noticed that even though he couldn't wake up with the sunrise, he woke up early the next day, and came to the post-race breakfast, and ate a full meal with you and your mother.

And it was then you noticed that even though he couldn't hold a conversation any longer than a few whispers, he spoke with everyone you introduced him to, especially the Ironman athletes who were his own age (or older), and who had done the race with you--and had finished.

And it was then you heard him say that there was something wrong, and that he needed help...and because these words came from him, you knew they were important.

Which is why it was significant when the doctors scheduled him for emergency surgery. Which is why it was significant when they held him a week in the hospital. Which is why it was significant when the prognosis was for months of recovery. Which is why it was significant when the cardiologists and surgeons told you that they were shocked that someone in his condition had been able to live so long, and that by all rights he shouldn't even have been around, let alone travel, let alone to another country, let alone across an ocean, let alone through 7 time zones, let alone on a plane, let alone even be in the audience to watch an Ironman.

And you knew then that you'd almost lost him.

And you realized then the reality of what it would be like without his presence in your life.

And you understood then the magnitude of his mortality.

You told him, finally, some weeks after surgery, over the phone. In the slow, awkward, measured conversations that occur so often between fathers and sons, particularly over the so many things so profound and so significant and so broken by the silence of that which can be said against that which can only be unsaid, and which instead can only be left to be shared as something special between our souls.

You said to him: I thought I'd lost you.

He replied: I thought I'd lost me to.

You joked: It isn't time for Valhalla yet.

He laughed: I don't know about Valhalla, but New Zealand was probably the best thing that could have happened to me.

And then there was a pause.

And then he said:

I would have given up if it hadn't been for you.

And the two of you said nothing more, because the emotions ran beyond the reach of words.

Like the still waters of a slow-flowing river, moving as strong and as deep and as inexorable as the inevitability of time matched to the mysteries of eternity lying beyond the horizons of creation's great seas.

And they run still.

Happy Father's Day, Dad.

Jag älskar dig (kram du).

Friday, June 06, 2008

nutrition: kenyan marathon runners (part 2: diet)

apart from ugali, there were a few extra observations i had regarding the nutrition of kenyan marathon runners that i made in the previous post (reference: part 1). the article i was discussing also covered a number of other details regarding the diet and training habits that i thought were illuminating. you can look at the full text of the article that i placed in my last post, or go directly to the link:
a number of things that i thought were interesting:
  • meals: the athletes eat roughly 5 times a day, with 2 light meals (snacks) and 3 larger meals (what we'd consider breakfast, lunch, and dinner), and all spaced roughly 2-3 hours apart...this is roughly in line with the "grazing" concept espoused by a lot of dietitians, medical science, and sports nutritionists that i know, since it seems to 1) help maintain a steady metabolic rate throughout the day, preventing lethargy and sustaining the body's fat-burning and recovery systems, 2) help moderate insulin and blood-sugar levels, controlling appetite and again helping prevent lethargy and supporting fat-burning and recovery, and 3) avoids overwhelming the body's digestive system, which according the endurance sports nutrition references i've used (primarily Joe Friel's Going Long and Gale Bernhardt's Training Plans for Multi-Sport Athletes, both of which i consider to be necessary reading for anyone considering Ironman and half-Ironman distance races) is about 200-300 calories per hour during physical activity, with anything more going into fat storage (where you don't really want it to go) as opposed to muscle rebuilding and glycogen storage (where you want it to go).
  • caloric distribution: the athletes have a nutrient intake distributed by roughly 76% carbohydrates / 10% protein / 14% fat...this is somewhat consistent, although a little off, the numbers i've read (again, primarily Joe Friel's and Gale Bernhardt's books, as well as various other sources on the internet--see later in this post), which for endurance athletes seem to recommend a distribution of 70-80% carbohydrates / 10-15% protein / 10-15% fat. i was somewhat surprised to see a higher percentage of fat than protein, since i've heard the constant drumbeat of "high body fat bad" for so long from so many coaches, and also since i've always felt envious of all the lean physiques i always see of the elite competitors on the race course. this is giving me cause to reshuffle my thinking on fats (although, i know that there is a difference between "bad" artery-clogging, hip-hugging, butt-jiggling fat and "good" biochemical-reaction-supporting, hormone-regulating fat, but this is the first time i have to consider that my personal aversion to fat may not be so warranted).
  • sugar: the athletes took in 20% of daily calories from sugar...WOW. i've been constantly reminded soooooo many times by soooooo many people to limit sugar intake, since it induces the insulin spike and crash that leads to increased appetite and resulting temptation to overeat. for me, sugar, along with fat, has always been the devil responsible for high body fat and the evil syndromes of muffin-tops and big butts, and associated slow times and great suffering on race day. but here, it appears that the kenyan athletes consider sugar to be a desirable element in their diet, since it provides a quick source of easily-absorbed energy to fuel physical activity. however, i should note that the article does make it clear that the kenyans consume sugar while still holding to 2 principles: 1) sugar intake does not come at the expense of other necessary nutrients (i.e., vitamins, minerals, fiber, anti-oxidants), and 2) sugar intake does not cause caloric intake to exceed caloric expenditure (one of the fundamental guiding principles of all athletic nutrition).
  • body size: the athletes average around 5'-9" in height and 129 pounds in weight (!!!)...this was a minor detail in the article, but eye-opening to me. i am 5'-10" and 160 pounds, making me overweight by their standards. which is jarring, since i consider myself pretty lean (right now, my waist size is 29" and my body fat is 7-8%). dropping my body weight to scale down to the dimensions of a kenyan athlete would mean getting to around 140 pounds, which in my current state would mean dropping muscle mass--but this raises the question as to from where? granted, my extra mass is probably from upper-body and core muscles coming from weight training, swimming, and martial arts. i'm reluctant to give any of those up, so i may have to just be happy with the dimensions i currently am (although...i still would like to get the body fat percentage down...).
for additional information about Kenyan runner's nutrition, you can check out:
for purposes of comparison, you can compare their eating habits (eating times, caloric amounts, and proportions) with those recommended for endurance athletes:
all these things above are roughly in line with the recommendations of medical science and sports science for what is deemed necessary for healthy living and peak performance. it goes to show that one is pretty much the same as the other.

still, the details about diet of kenyan marathon runners are still illuminating in terms of what they indicate about perspectives on certain ideas i'd considered as guidelines, and are giving me some food for thought (sorry, bad pun, but i just couldn't resist, just to easy, ha ha ha, yuck yuck yuck...) regarding my own diet habits...maybe it will for you as well.

Monday, June 02, 2008

nutrition: kenyan marathon runners (part 1: ugali)

one of the areas i've been trying to improve is my nutrition, since i've become intensely aware of just how much it affects training and racing. for normal daily physical activity, there's a certain margin of error (or lack of discipline) that you can indulge in with your diet without too much noticeable deterioration in performance. for serious training (and by serious, i mean either competitive racing or any attempt at a longer-distance race like ironmans, half-ironmans, marathons, etc.), however, the margin of error becomes razor-thin, since you are placing such high demands on your body that any waivering in nutrition will result in very noticeable deterioration in performance--enough that it can make the difference between finishing or not finishing at all.

as a result, i've become alert for any information regarding nutrition for sports, particularly endurance sports. any time i come across any substantive news or research or announcement or article on nutrition supporting training and racing, i'll make the effort to check it out and add it to my personal library of wisdom.

one such piece of information was the research done on the nutrition of Kenyan marathon runners. i pretty much idolize these guys, and i'm always curious as to their training methods. which is why when i came across an article on their dietary habits, i just had to find out more. this is the piece (it's a little older, coming out in 2006, but i see it as something that's pretty much constant, and so not time-sensitive):
in case the link doesn't work, i've included the full text of the article at the end of this post.

the big thing that caught my attention--and apparently everybody else in the U.S.--was the description of the major source of carbohydrates for Kenyan marathon runners. according to the article, it's a corn-based product called ugali.

most people involved in endurance athletes are aware of the need for carbohydrates, and not just any carbohydrates, but low-glycemic carbohydrates.

high-glycemic carbohydrates cause a spike in blood sugar, triggering a rise in insulin, which induces the body's fat-storage systems. this is followed by a crash in blood sugar, which induces the body's appetite, which in turn pulls you into eating, and thereby encourages repeating the cycle all over again. the end result is excessive calories, causing excess fat--and, if maintained with more high-glycemic carbohydrates, inadequate anti-oxidants to fight the free radicals impeding your body's recovery and development. high-glycemic carbohydrates are generally considered more appropriate during or immediately after exercise, when your body is in greater need of immediate energy.

low-glycemic carbohydrates, in contrast, don't spike blood sugar levels, but instead tend to have much more moderate, long-term modulations, avoiding the insulin spikes and attendant fat-storage mode and rise in appetite. that, and they also tend to be found in foods with anti-oxidants, thereby aiding to fight free radicals and assist in recovery and development. it is because of this that low-glycemic carbohydrates are viewed as more appropriate for longer-term (i.e., outside of training or racing, or beyond the immediate period after them) post-training or post-racing recovery...which is pretty much most of the time (note that this is yet another reason why endurance sports is considered a lifestyle, and one that strangely enough aligns itself with most doctors' guidelines for a healthy one).

the question, though, is then finding sources of low-glycemic carbohydrates. particularly--given the caloric demands of endurance sports--sources that are 1) cheap, 2) plentiful, 3) easy to make, and 4) satisfying (i.e., filling). it's harder then you think; the wheat (courtesy of all the processing and additional ingredients) used in most bread and pasta is often high-glycemic, contrary to their advertising. it can be quite an effort to find bread, pasta, or anything that is genuinely low-glycemic.

which is why i was intrigued by ugali. judging from the kenyans' performance and training, and even just by looking at their physiques, it seems ugali is a low-glycemic carbohydrate source...and because it's based on corn, it's likely to fulfill the other conditions of being cheap, plentiful, easy to make, and satisfying.

i dug around to find more about ugali, and discovered that it's kind of like grits (yes, grits, as in the southern corn-based porridge so common to the southern U.S.). but ugali is thicker, with a consistency that allows it to be cut into slices, albeit not so much cake or bread-like but more spongy and chewy.

i found a video on how to make ugali from the Chasing KIMBIA Youtube channel (which, by the way, i highly recommend you watch if you want to learn how superior long-distance runners train). you can see ugali for yourself:

cooking ugali:

there's also:

i should point out i haven't actually tried making ugali for myself. i'm still trying to find the right kind of cornmeal--although, i've been recently told that it doesn't really matter, since the recipe is so basic that the ingredients will end up producing the same thing anyway. i'm keen to try, so i'm going to try and give it a shot as soon as i can.

i'll let you know how it goes...i'm pretty curious myself.

Eating practices of the best endurance athletes in the world
By Owen Anderson, Ph.D.For
May 16, 2006

It's strange, but true: The nutritional practices of the best endurance athletes in the world have not been carefully studied.

Those "best endurance athletes" are clearly the Kenyan runners. Attempting to verify this fact for you is probably unnecessary, but it can at least be noted that one study found that athletes from just one collection of Kenyans, the Kalenjin tribe, had won approximately 40 percent of all major international middle- and long-distance running competitions in the 10-year period from 1987 to 1997.1

In addition, approximately half of all of the male athletes in the world who have ever run the 10K in less than 27 minutes hail from Kenya. When they're allowed to enter freely, Kenyan athletes dominate road races around the world.

And yet, until now the eating habits of the top-level Kenyan runners haven't been examined in a scientific way, even though the Kenyans' nutritional practices must assuredly represent a key reason for their running success. The person who argues that "If only the Kenyans would eat differently, they could run much faster," would be on flimsy ground. The Kenyans are doing things right when they sit down at the dinner table, or they wouldn't dominate international competitions.

But what is it exactly that they're doing? Are they Zone dieters, followers of the Perricone Promise, adherents of the Atkins Diet, or do they focus on the South Beach eating plan? Do they eat lots of "discredited" carbs or large ladles of lipids? From what foods do they get their seemingly limitless energy for running?

Study specifics

To answer these questions, Yannis Pitsiladis of the International Centre for East African Running Science in Glasgow, Scotland, along with Mike Boit (the Olympic bronze-medal winner from the 1972 Games), Vincent Onywera, and Festus Kiplamai from the Exercise and Sports Science Department at Kenyatta University in Nairobi and the Department of Foods, Nutrition and Dietetics at Egerton University in Njoro, Kenya, recently monitored everything that went into the mouths of 10 elite Kenyan runners over a seven-day period at a training camp near Kaptagat, Kenya.2

This group of Kenyan athletes was truly top-level, including several Olympic medalists and also first-place finishers from the Paris and Athens World Championships.

All 10 runners belonged to the Kalenjin tribe, with five from the Nandi sub-tribe, three from the Keiyo grouping, one Tugen individual, and a Sabaot. Two of the athletes specialized in 1,500-meter running, while the other eight were training for eight- and 12-K cross-country competitions.

The average age of the Kenyans was 21, and mean height was 1.75 meters (~5' 9"), with remarkably little variation in stature (the shortest individual was 1.70 meters, the tallest 1.80 meters, which meant that the smallest and greatest heights were just three percent away from the mean).

As you might expect, the Kenyans were lean, with body weight averaging ~58.6 kilograms (129 pounds) and body fat ranging from about six to 10 percent.

Dietary intakes were measured each day for seven consecutive days in December, when the athletes were reaching peak condition for the Kenyan cross-country season. The Kenyans followed their normal diets and weighed and recorded everything that was consumed (both food and drink); food weighing was accomplished with digital scales. The elite Kenyans were given as much food as they wanted, and they ate five times a day, according to the following plan:

1. Breakfast at 8:00 a.m.
2. Mid-morning snack at 10:00 a.m.
3. Lunch at 1:00 p.m.
4. Afternoon snack at 4:00 p.m.

Supper at 7:00 p.m.Kenyan runners tend to eat a limited variety of foods, and that was certainly the case with these elite athletes. Most of their nutrients came from vegetable sources, and the "staple" edibles were bread, boiled rice, poached potatoes, boiled porridge, cabbage, kidney beans and ugali (a well-cooked, corn-meal paste that's molded into balls and dipped into other foods for flavoring).

Meat (primarily beef) was eaten just four times a week in fairly small amounts (about 100 grams -- 3.5 ounces a day). A fair amount of tea with milk and sugar was imbibed on a daily basis (more on this in a moment).

If you're thinking about heading to a nutritional-supplement store to purchase some performance-enhancing supplements (or you already purchase on a regular basis), bear in mind that the Kenyan runners were not taking supplements of any kind. There were no vitamins, no minerals, no special formulations or miracle compounds, nada. The gold-medal-winning Kenyans adhered to the odd philosophy that regular foods could fuel their efforts quite nicely.

Quality running

The Kenyan runners' training during the seven-day study period was straightforward. The athletes trained mostly as a group, two times a day, with a 6 a.m. run followed by an afternoon run at around 5 p.m. The 6 a.m. run was six to nine miles at varying speeds, including a nice chunk of high-quality running at a pace as high as four minutes per mile.

The afternoon runs usually centered on four to five miles at an easy pace (note that this works out to a weekly total of about 75 miles). Once a week, the two 1,500-meter runners carried out high-speed interval training. A very interesting observation was that each elite Kenyan spent just 1.2 hours per day running, with about 33 percent of this consisting of "quality running." This means that the elite-Kenyans' daily "intake" of quality running was about 23 minutes.

Daily nutrient intake

About 86 percent of daily calories came from vegetable sources, with 14 percent from animal foods. As you might expect, the Kenyan-runners' diets were extremely rich in carbohydrate, with 76.5 percent of daily calories coming from carbs. The Kenyans ate about 10.4 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body mass each day, or approximately 4.7 grams per pound of body weight.

An amazing facet of the Kenyans' eating habits was the consistency of this carbohydrate intake: Every 24 hours, the Kenyans took in about 600 grams of carbohydrate, with very little variation from day to day. They were truly stocking their leg muscles with glycogen, giving their sinews the right fuel necessary for the high-intensity training they were conducting -- and avoiding the fatigue which automatically follows on the heels of glycogen wipe-outs.Incidentally, sports-nutrition experts frequently recommend that athletes involved in strenuous training should consume about nine or more grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body mass per day, so you can see that the Kenyans were truly eating according to current scientific wisdom.

Given such an ample carbohydrate intake and the reliance on vegetable foods, fat intake was bound to be modest, and it was: About 13.4 percent of daily calories came from fat (~46 grams), with 61 percent of these calories coming from milk (Kenyan runners ordinarily place full-cream milk in their tea).

Protein intake amounted to 10.1 percent of all calories and a total of 1.3 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (75 total grams daily). Once again, the Kenyans were fully in line with recommendations of top sports nutritionists, who call for protein intakes of ~1.2 grams per kilogram daily for endurance athletes. About two-thirds of the protein came from plant foods. Water intake was modest (about 1.113 liters per day), and the Kenyans actually tended to drink more tea than water on a daily basis (tea consumption was about 1.243 daily liters).

The foods

As you might expect, ugali furnished about 23 percent of the runners' daily calories; after all, it's the national dish of Kenya. There were some surprises in the dietary data, however. For example, just behind ugali in second place for calorie-provisioning was plain sugar, which provided about one out of every five calories (20 percent) consumed by the Kenyans over the course of the day.

That's right, the vitamin-free, mineral-free, "bad," "simple" carb from which Americans are fleeing was consumed in rather prodigious amounts, about 133.5 grams (534 calories) per day. Similar levels of sugar consumption are sometimes blamed for the rising tide of obesity in the U.S., particularly among young people, but in fact sugar intake provides some key advantages for athletes involved in intense training on a daily basis: After all, the stuff re-stocks muscle-glycogen stores very quickly and effectively.

As long as the rest of the diet is rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber and anti-oxidants (which is the case with the elite Kenyans), and as long as regular exercise is carried out and caloric intake doesn't exceed caloric expenditure (also the case), sugar isn't a bad thing at all. In fact, it can be argued (from the quick-glycogen-replacement standpoint), that sugar is a rather-desirable nutrient (before you send me any angry letters on this topic, please look up the frequencies of type 2 diabetes in Kenya and the U.S.).

In terms of providing calories, the "big-four provisioners" in the Kenyans' diets were:

1. ugali, with 23 percent of total calories
2. sugar, with 20 percent of all calories
3. rice, at 14 percent
4. milk, hitting 13 percent

No other single food provided more than six percent of daily caloric sustenance (bread was at six percent, with potatoes and beans at five percent each).

Milk provided the lion's share of protein, with 28 percent of daily protein grams (and calories), followed by beans, with a respectable 19-percent share, and rice and ugali were neck-and-neck for third and fourth, with 12 and 11 percent of daily protein, respectively. A smaller surprise? Since the Kenyans relied so heavily on full-cream milk as a source of energy and protein, their daily consumption of saturated fat checked in at about 28 grams -- 252 calories out of the daily caloric quota of 3,000 or so.

Other findings

In addition to taking in slightly more than the recommended amounts of carbohydrate and protein for athletes, the Kenyans also used another fundamental principle of sports nutrition to enhance their abilities to train and perform well: They always ate within one hour after workouts. This post-workout period when glycogen re-synthesis rates can be maximized, as long as adequate carbohydrate is provided in the diet (as was the case with the Kenyans). When carbohydrate ingestion is delayed after a training session, lower total intramuscular glycogen levels are often the result. Those Kenyans are smart!

The Kenyan runners' carbohydrate intakes are also higher than those reported in endurance athletes in other countries around the world. As Pitsiladis, Boit, Onywera and Kiplamai pointed out, the carb intake of elite distance runners in the U.S., the Netherlands, Australia and South Africa have been measured at 49 (!), 50, 52 and 50 percent of total calories, respectively, a far cry from the Kenyan total of 76.5 percent.3,4,5,6 The Kenyans appear to be doing a better job of fueling themselves for their high-intensity training, compared with their "peers" in other countries.

This new investigation agrees well with the limited information published about Kenyan-athletes' eating habits in the past. Two previous studies found carbohydrate intake in Kenyans to be about 71 and 75 percent of total calories, with fat and protein consumption similar to the levels observed in the new research. 7,8 This kind of validation and the careful techniques employed in the new study (one of the researchers, for example, stayed with the athletes around the clock while the dietary monitoring was being carried out) indicate that the data is accurate, truly representing elite-Kenyans' eating patterns.

Overall, the Kenyan eating plan has strong similarities to the food-consumption habits of another group of outstanding distance runners -- the Tarahumara Indians of the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico. The Tarahumaras are more-noted for their ultra-running capacities, rather than their 10-K performances, so one might expect their diets to be a bit more heavily biased in the direction of fat, but research reveals that about 75 to 80 percent of total daily energy comes from carbohydrate, 12 percent from fat and eight to 13 percent (sound familiar?) from protein. Like the Kenyans, the Tarahumara Indians eat copious quantities of corn meal, along with praiseworthy portions of beans.9

With their high carbohydrate intake, adequate protein ingestion, and perfect timing of meals, the top Kenyan runners are eating optimally -- doing the things at the dinner table which are necessary for them to perform at the world's highest level. We can certainly learn from them and eat in ways which give our muscles the fuel they need to carry out the high-quality workouts which represent our true path to performance improvement.

"Kenya's Running Tribe," The Sports Historian, Vol. 17 (2), pp. 14-27, 1997
"Food and Macronutrient Intake of Elite Kenyan Distance Runners," International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, Vol. 14, pp. 709-719, 2004
"Macronutrient Intake of US Athletes Compared with the General Population and Recommendations Made for Athletes," American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 49, pp. 1070-1076, 1989
"Nationwide Survey on Nutritional Habits in Elite Athletes. Part I: Energy, Carbohydrate, Protein, and Fat Intake," International Journal of Sports Medicine, Vol. 10 (1 Supplement), pp. S3-S10, 1989
"Dietary Intakes and Food Use of Groups of Elite Australian Male Athletes," International Journal of Sport Nutrition, Vol. 1 (4), pp. 378-394, 1991
"Dietary Practices of South African Ultradistance Runners," International Journal of Sport Nutrition, Vol. 7, pp. 80-103, 1977
"Food and Macronutrient Intake of Male Adolescent Kalenjin Runners in Kenya," British Journal of Nutrition, Vol. 88 (6), pp. 711-717, 2002
"Nutrition and Body Build: A Kenyan Review," World Rev Nutr Diet, Vol. 72, pp. 218-226, 1993
"The Food and Nutrient Intakes of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico," American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 32 (4), pp. 9-5-915, 1979